Async communication, taking remote teams to the next level

You probably already know all the upsides remote work brings you and your team: no commute, spending more time with your loved ones and an overall better life quality.

November 2020 6 min read

Photo by: Simon Rae

For many years now, remote work has been praised by many around the world. But there’s another step you can take to improve the lives of your employees and thus, as a result, the output of their work and that is async communication. An idea, process or a set of rules if you will on how to communicate within your remote team.

What is asynchronous (async) communication?

Async communication is when you communicate without expecting instant answers. The time between answers can be anywhere between a few minutes to 24 hours (or longer if you decide to). It promotes long stretches of focussed work without distractions. No barrage of notifications from direct messages that need your instant attention. Or multiple video meetings in a row. Communication is done in a transparent way. Discussions around topics important to your business are done in a way where they are accessible to everyone. This helps existing and new team members as useful and valuable information is not hidden in DMs or video chats. And this also helps to “level the playing field” as everyone has access to the same information/data.

But it also promotes autonomous work: people know what they need to work on without relying on their manager. Because async work needs more planning beforehand, nobody is sitting idle waiting to be told what to do next. This is a key part in pulling off async work.

The most common strategy still, even in most remote teams, is synchronous communication/work.

What’s the problem with synchronous communication?

With synchronous work, meaning having multiple video meetings every week and responding to chat messages and DMs as they arrive, your days are scattered in many tiny blocks. After each interruption you have to reset and regain your focus again. You get less real work done, which can be highly demotivating. Even a continuous stream of chat messages in (multiple) channels can be a drag, as some might feel they need to read all and everything. This could lead to coworkers thinking they need to work extra hours after work, so they don’t feel they did too little. This is a negative spiral downward and is hard to break out off. Even if you personally don’t want to get caught in the synchronous work trap, it’s hard if you are the only one in your team retaining from it.

Picture of a calendar with lots of distractions

Why async communication help remote teams

The reason async communication is getting traction, is because it puts your team first. Teams embracing async work know the value deep focussed work does for them in the short ánd long term. People are not constantly distracted by messages from their coworkers or managers. They don’t feel the constant need to “check in”, to make sure they stay up to date on the various chats going on in the channels they are part off. Instead they carve out some time 2-3 times a day to respond to topics they are involved in. This leaves them with longer blocks of time they can do real work. Work that can make a difference to the product or company. This has the indirect consequence that your team feels they really make a difference. This is important to feel part of something more, it’s more than “time for money”.

Being able to work around their own schedule helps with their work-life balance. When they are not expected to be available between 9 to 5, they can do other things they enjoy too in the morning. They could opt-in to have a coffee with a friend, spend time with their kids or go on a hike. When each day is not just about work, it brings calmness to the mind—which is super helpful for healthy and happy people. Fluid availability also means people are free to do the best work when they feel at their best. This could mean for some people early in the morning, but for others this could be later in the evening. Having this freedom really helps in the longterm—they can do work around their schedule instead of the other (old) way around (from 9 to 5).

For even more distributed remote teams async work helps too. If your team is scattered around multiple time zones, nobody is working in some kind of “graveyard shift”. Either really early in the morning or late at night. There might be times this is needed, let’s say for a rare video meeting, but these should be avoided as much as possible. And if you do need to have video meetings with people covering many different time zones, make sure not the same people have to meet in, for them, difficult times (either really early or late).

So in summary:

Async communication should be your default option, but when is it not a good option?

It really depends on your company. But generally when there’s an emergency, for example: a large percentage of your customers experience a bug, your servers are down or any other critical part of your business does not work as expected, you might go the synchronous route. This could be a video meeting to quickly get all information together and work on a solution together. When everything is back to normal, it is useful to have someone on the responsible team write a postmortem that can be shared with the rest, so everyone knows what was up.

Meetup’s or retreats are obviously synchronous. They are great for team bonding and to get closer to everyone. Seeing everyone face to face every once in awhile should be high on your list as a remote team manager.

Sometimes it makes more sense to have a video meeting, when you need to give critical feedback. A product demo could also work better as it’s more interactive and answers can be answered directly.

Write up some guidelines that people can check when synchronous communication is the way to go or not. Talk over them, get feedback from your team and adapt as needed.

Successful distributed work is a result of coordinated asynchronous communication. — Hiten Shah

Steps to make async the default

It’s not an easy switch per se and depending on your team, might take a while—but before you go all in, as a manager, you can set an example. Disable the status indicator in your chat app. Only check it at fixed times during the day. Don’t engage in quick one-to-one chats that should’ve been in a (topic) thread that is accessible/searchable to everyone. Send your team this article to educate them on the many upsides of async communication for their health, happiness and productivity.

How you use your communication/chat tools is more important that which tools you use, but know that some tools care more about the time spent in the app than the results they provide. Some things to look for here are: availability status, default to short messages (by way of small input fields) and unread badges (in red). In the end every tool can be used for async communication, but some tools are simply better suited for it.

Don’t have a default weekly video meeting to go over last and upcoming week with the whole team or, worse, daily “standups”, but only have meetings with a clear agenda and with only the people actually needed for that meeting.

As with every big shift in thinking, it might take some time to get used to it. So do táke the time. As often is the case with big changes, discuss the ideas with your team first and be sure everybody does see the upside of it. Depending on your team going step-by-step works better or going all-in at once works better. This is a choice you, as a manager, can only make.

Questions? We are here.

At Helptail we default to async work too. Before that we worked in various positions asynchronously or shifted towards it. As it respects our lives even more than just remote, our overall happiness increases—which is really valuable personally, but also for the company.

It’s a subject dear to our hearts, so we are happy to help you move towards async communication. Feel free to reach out to us.

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